Alla Nazimova (“NAH-zim-oh-va”) was born in 1879, in Yalta, a seaside resort city on the Crimean peninsula in what was then Czarist Russia. Her name at birth was Adelaida Leventon, but she was called Alla, a diminutive for Adelaida. Her father, Yakov Leventon, was a pharmacist. The family was prosperous, but her father was abusive and her mother was unfaithful. After her parents split up, her mother moved away. Alla saw her only rarely after that.
She was educated in a Swiss boarding school where she spoke French and German. She also learned how to play the violin. Back in Yalta at age 12 she was invited to perform at a recital. Her father’s first impulse was discouraging. Fearing she would embarrass him, Yakov told the music teacher that Alla could perform but, he said, “She mustn’t call herself Adelaida Leventon. Everyone will know she is my daughter and I can’t have her bringing disgrace on the family.” He told Alla, “If and when you’re good enough, and become famous, you can use my name. But not before.”
Undeterred, Alla decided to call herself “Nazimova,” the name of the heroine in the novel, Children of the Streets. Her father and stepmother attended her recital, and Alla performed well enough to receive boisterous applause at the end. When they got home, however, her father gave her the worst beating of her life, hitting her so hard with a cane that he broke her arm. ”Just because a few provincial fools applaud you,” he said, “don’t imagine you’re Paganini.”
Alla endured this sort of abuse until she was sent away again, at age 13. Yakov became seriously ill, possibly from syphilis, and his wife sent Alla to live with Yakov’s brother in Yedintsy, in present-day Moldova. She lived there for two years and was packed off to a boarding school in Odessa, where the head mistress was a humpbacked princess. After the school burned down, she went to live with a schoolmate, a young girl with dreams of becoming an actress, dreams that were actively encouraged by her friend’s mother — and dreams that Alla came to adopt as her own.
Alla was conflicted about acting, however, because of her sister Nina’s attitude toward it. Nina stated flatly that actresses were all prostitutes. But Alla doubted that was true. She remained determined to pursue her dream, and decided that she would move to Moscow to study acting. Alla’s brother Volodya, a recent military school graduate, stood in for her ailing father and granted her permission to go and even helped with the arrangements.
She enrolled at the famed Moscow Arts Theatre, where Konstanin Stanislavski was developing the acting technique he later codified as “The Method.” Actors were trained to incorporate thoughts, feelings and memories from real life into the character being portrayed – a radical change from the traditional, extremely mannered approach in which gestures and vocalization were used to signal motives and emotions. It was radical then but it became a dominant style in American movies in the 1950s and ‘60s, popularized by Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro and Daniel Day-Lewis.
Alla was introduced to romance in Moscow, but in a way very different from the traditional experience of young women in that era. She had an affair with a wealthy married man who was besotted with her, showering her with jewels and cash – a situation she feared was very close to prostitution. She also fell in love with Stanislavsky’s dashing young assistant, but he dropped her when he found out about the millionaire.
Heartbroken, on a whim she married a penniless actor, Sergei Golovin, who was also smitten with her. Alla and Sergei lived together as roommates, but the millionaire, who was paying the rent, was a frequent visitor. Golovin tired of playing the third wheel and moved out. Alla departed, too. She found work in a repertory company and went on tour around central Russia.
On this tour and others that followed Alla became adept at performing roles in plays by the European realists – Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekov and others. At one of the provincial theatres in December 1900 she met Pavel Orlenev, a legendary actor. They fell into a passionate affair, and at the end of the run, he invited her to join a new touring company he had formed. Appearing with the brilliant Orlenev in “The Brothers Karamazov,” “Crime and Punishment” and Ibsen’s “Ghosts,” among other plays, Alla experienced a de facto master class in acting. Orlenev eventually set up shop in a theatre in St. Petersburg, where their productions became popular with elites in what was Russia’s most sophisticated city.
In late 1903, Orlenev produced “The Chosen People,” a provocative drama by Evgeny Chirikov about the plight of Jews in Russia. (The play was originally titled “The Jew,” according to some sources.) Its implicit criticism of the government of Czar Nicholas II made it a risky gambit for Orlenev. It was even riskier for Alla. Unlike Orlenev, she was Jewish, and “audacious conduct” among Jews was illegal in Russia.
On the night that the play was to open, Orlenev was informed that the czar had ordered the production shut down. Orlenev decided to proceed but as soon as the curtain went up that night, Cossacks swarmed the theatre, driving the audience outside and threatening the cast and crew with arrest. Facing persecution by the government, Orlenev made a fateful decision to take the production to Berlin, where there was sufficient freedom of expression to mount a play about Jewish oppression.
It was during the European tour of “The Chosen People” that Alla, at age 25, began referring to herself as “Madame Nazimova.” Friends, colleagues and especially employees would call her Madame. The title could be construed as the feminine equivalent of “maestro,” and it could mean she was married, but she called herself Madame Nazimova, not Madame Golovin.
While Alla’s relationship with Orlenev was no bed of roses — he was a serial philanderer and an alcoholic binger who may have been afflicted with a bipolar disorder — there was nothing holding her in Russia. Her father had died while she was at Moscow Art Theatre. Her sister and brother apparently kept Alla’s share of their inheritance, and Nina’s new husband was already gambling away Nina’s share of the money.
The Orlenev company went on tour to Berlin and then London. “The Chosen People” was well received by both audiences and critics, despite its being performed entirely in Russian. There was a change in dynamics on stage in London, however, when the limelight shifted from the great Orlenev to his leading lady. The show’s London producer J.T. Grein wrote later that, despite the fact that Nazimova spoke Russian during her performance, “[the] moment she spoke, the audience hung on her lips … and when she delivered a speech which in its accents of denunciation equaled Zola’s ‘J’Accuse’ in the Dreyfus case, the audience rose in a frenzy.”
Based on their success in London, Orlenev decided to move the production to New York, where there was a large pool of Russian-speaking immigrants with few cultural and entertainment offerings in their own language. “The Chosen People” opened at Broadway’s Herald Square Theatre on March 23, 1905, to accolades from critics, especially for Nazimova. “We could not understand the language of the play,” wrote one reviewer, “but the language of Alla Nazimova is universal. It is the language of the soul.” He also correctly predicted that “Her name will be a household word.”
The company mounted new plays that spring and switched in June to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”– in Russian. Box office remained strong, in part because of assistance from Emma Goldman, an infamous radical and anarchist who provided invaluable public-relations support. Because of her ties to the anarchist movement, Goldman had been interrogated four years earlier during the investigation into the assassination of President William McKinley. Alla discovered that Orlenev and Emma were having an affair, but she said nothing because she was involved with an artist, Maurice Sterne. She spent time with him in Paris later that year and then traveled east to visit her sister and brother.
Alla patched things up with Orlenev after her return in the fall. They opened in a theatre in the Bowery in November in repertory with Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” and “The Seagull”; “The Master Builder” by Henrik Ibsen; and “The Lower Depth” by Maxim Gorky. Attendance was poor at first, likely due to the downscale location. Emma Goldman convinced critics to see the show, and their favorable reviews — many of which focused on Nazimova — got the attention of Broadway producers who arranged a fundraiser to keep the show open. The effort drew support from moneymen J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie, author Edith Wharton and others. The renewed interest led to packed houses and a tour with stops in Chicago and Boston.
The tour brought an end Orlenev-Nazimova affair. The buzz was all about Alla, which was hard enough on Orlenev, but the final indignity was the producers’ insistence that she be given equal billing. When the tour ended, Orlenev announced that the company was returning to Russia. Meanwhile, a handful of Alla’s new well-connected supporters quietly arranged a meeting for her with top Broadway producer Lee Shubert. After she signed with Shubert Organization, the company provided her with a crash course in English.
There was one last snafu before Orlenev left town. He was jailed on charges he had bilked investors in the company out of $1,500. Emma Goldman reportedly paid his bail, settled the debt and, in May 1906, Pavel Orlenev went home. With the backing of Lee Shubert, Nazimova prepared herself to take on an immense challenge. She was out to conquer Broadway.